No, I Won’t “Take a Joke”

“Hey Colleen, maybe you should spend more time with [boyfriend’s name] and less time working on this conference.”

I remember freezing—sitting at my desk, wondering if I was really hearing this. I had worked for an hour straight to compile a detailed list of everything that needed to be accomplished before our school’s annual Model United Nations Conference came in March; and when the conference director sent out the list to our team, the first response that appeared was from my fellow analytics coordinator—a boy in my grade, mocking my efforts and telling me I needed to focus on spending time with my boyfriend.

My fingers probed the keyboard in response, but something stopped me from pressing send to indignantly protest his comment. It was because I knew that if I responded upset at all, he would tell me that I needed to relax, chill out—and “take a joke.”

Because, as a female leader in a male-dominated club, I was constantly taunted for being too sensitive about jokes. Starting off my freshman year, I kept my head low, as I was intimidated by the vast majority of people in the club, our largest at school by far. But slowly, I began gaining momentum, as I placed well in conference after conference. The beginning of sophomore year yielded significant results for my hard work. I was elected as a coordinator for my school’s host conference. Elated, I settled into my new leadership role and was immediately met with jokes at my expense by my fellow coordinator.

I had experienced the occasional poke up until this point—nothing harmful that actually upset me. But the jokes soon took a harsh, sexist tone that made me extremely uncomfortable at times.

The first time I spoke out, I was met with a hostile response: “Whoa, chill out. It was just a joke. Don’t get so offended.”

And I believed it.

Because of the incessant criticism I received for being “too dramatic,” I started believing that I truly wasn’t meant to lead. For every announcement I made, there was at least one boy making a rude comment and immediately blaming me for being too sensitive when I got angry. I was doing more work for less credit, yet I felt as if I couldn’t accomplish anything for the conference without instigating a derisive response from him.

And then the realization set in. I realized there are women out in the world who are experiencing what I was. And on a daily basis, there are massive numbers of people who tell the targets of sexist jokes that they need to learn to “take a joke.”

A comment could be phrased in the most perverse way possible, making the woman feel immensely unsafe—and she could still be told to “take a joke.” Because if it’s happened to me in high school, on such a small and insignificant scale, it’s happening to women all over the world who are being scolded for standing up for themselves.

I ended up not responding to the comment he made. But now, I wish I had, because even if he would have told me to loosen up, get a grip, or tone it down, it still would have empowered me to know that I wasn’t making a fool of myself. I was standing up for myself.

And I’m sure on occasion I may have overreacted—I’m a teenager, so I don’t pride myself on being emotionally stable—but that doesn’t negate the fact that there are people who will stubbornly refuse to take back a comment they made and simply blame a woman for being too sensitive for it.

No, I will no longer “take a joke” if it is sexist or offends me! I can’t please everyone; that’s not what a leader does. A leader strives to become an example for future people, and as an upcoming leader in my own personal community, I will start and continue to set an example for future girls on my team—specifically, one that deals with politics—by exemplifying that it is not and will never be OK to subject someone to uncomfortable jokes passed off as humor.

Because, in the end, you can only control how you act, not how others do.

About the Author | Colleen Sherry

Colleen Sherry is a high school student and avid student writer in Washington, DC. Apart from being a diligent leader at her school's nationally-ranked Model United Nations team, Colleen loves to writer and has several pieces published by the International OCD Foundation. She hopes to pursue a career in international relations in the future, and enjoys playing with her golden retriever.

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